In Belarus, TrialWatch is monitoring the various dimensions of the post-election crackdown–against the political opposition, protesters and ordinary people, the journalists covering the repression, and the lawyers who defend them all. With trials increasingly closed to the public, and with lawyers subject to confidentiality agreements or disbarred on spurious grounds, it’s all the more important to know what is happening inside the courts.
Two young women journalists were convicted of ‘organizing group actions that grossly violated public order’ and given two-year prison sentences simply for live coverage of a protest.
TrialWatch Action: TrialWatch supported their appeal of their conviction by filing an amicus brief before the domestic court, urging their release.
At their trial, which was monitored by CFJ’s partner the ABA Center for Human Rights, the prosecution argued that because “the accused carried out a live broadcast” this “already confirms the fact that they organized illegal actions,” suggesting any reporting would have been considered a crime. The Fairness Report on their case gave the trial a grade of ‘D’ and found that: “The prosecution of Ms. Andreyeva and Ms. Chultsova was driven by an improper motive … to suppress independent and critical journalism.”
I consider all these criminal prosecutions and accusations to be totally unfounded, I vehemently oppose them and think they are politically motivated.Victor Babariko
An opposition figure who was arrested while on his way to register his candidacy was convicted of financial crimes and given a 14-year prison sentence. The Fairness Report on the case gave the trial a grade of ‘D,’ and found that: “[T]he record of Mr. Babariko’s trial indicates that Belarusian authorities failed to afford him the benefit of the doubt, suggesting that his indictment, prosecution, and eventual verdict were all a foregone conclusion designed to punish him for his presidential campaign.”
The ABA Center for Human Rights and Human Rights Embassy monitored 15 protest-related cases as part of TrialWatch that show the full scope of the authorities’ post-election crackdown. In one case, for instance, a man was arrested while praying for the victims of violence in the country. In another, an electrician who said he was walking home with his wife and child past the protests was part of a mass roundup of 150 people. Hearings were perfunctory at best, with two of them lasting less than 15 minutes. In eight of the cases, lawyers had to ask for time to speak with their clients as they hadn’t been given an opportunity to consult before trial. In four cases, defendants were not represented by counsel at all and none of the defendants had access to counsel while being interrogated in detention. The Fairness Report on these trials gave them a grade of ‘D,’ further finding that they “reflect persistent violations and reveal the systemic degradation of the Belarusian judicial system.”
Marina Zolotova the editor-in-chief of Tut.by, then the largest independent media portal in the country, was convicted in 2019 of criminal negligence for not preventing password sharing to access paywalled content from a state-run news agency. The Fairness Report on the case gave the trial a grade of ‘C,’ finding that there were “significant indicia that the prosecution stemmed from political motivations.” Since then, Tut.by has been shut down by the authorities.
The proceedings against the 15 accused Belarusian citizens who protested the presidential election results reveal severe, systemic violations of the defendants’ right to a fair trial and right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
The entirety of the case, as evinced by the absolute lack of evidence against Ms. Andreyeva and Ms. Chultsova, was geared towards suppressing independent journalism and sending a warning signal to other media outlets reporting on mass demonstrations in Belarus.
On July 6, 2021, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus convicted Viktor Dmitrievich Babariko, a leading opponent of incumbent Belarusian President Lukashenko during the 2020 Belarusian elections, of bribery and money laundering offenses. He was sentenced to a 14-year prison term.
Marina Zolotova is the editor-in-chief of the largest independent online news portal in Belarus, a country dominated by state and state-affiliated media. She was convicted after two weeks, and several elements of Ms. Zolotova’s prosecution raise concerns that the case was politically motivated.